The Strange Case of Monsieur Normal

François Hollande's lack of clear convictions won him the presidency. Will France regret saying non to Sarkozy?

In his novel Les Ambassades Roger Peyrefitte describes how, as his wealthy young hero’s train crosses France in 1937, the blinds of the restaurant car are drawn so as not to arouse the anger of the supporters of Léon Blum’s Popular Front government. I thought of this vignette as I made my way to Paris on the afternoon of France’s presidential election. A promised top income tax rate of 75 per cent would soon be adding to London’s already substantial French population.

Later that afternoon, as I walked through the streets of the prosperous 7th arrondissement and past the gilded dome above Napoleon’s tomb, there was no evident sense of either anticipation or anxiety. French law stipulates that there can be no campaigning on election day and, were it not for an occasional queue outside a polling station, one would hardly have known that an election was taking place. 

All of this changed at exactly 8pm. At this precise moment, as polling closed and families and friends assembled around their television sets, the result was made known to the French nation. As predicted, Hollande had won and there on our screens were scenes of joy outside the Socialist Party headquarters in the Rue de Solferino. No one had as yet actually counted the votes but this was what the exit polls told us. Indeed, such is the faith of the French in opinion polls that one wonders why the electorate cannot be saved the effort of actually turning out to vote.

It was at this point that I remembered that there is nothing quite as awful as French television. Nor, I realised for the first time, was there anything quite as glacial as the fixed smile on the face of Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner, the mother of his four children and failed presidential candidate in 2007.

Things started to get more interesting when Nicolas Sarkozy took to the stage at Paris’s Salle de la Mutualité. For a man who hoped against hope and who believed, until the last, that victory was within his grasp, he bore his defeat with great dignity. He congratulated his opponent, thanked his supporters, took personal responsibility for the defeat, spoke of eternal France, and was gone. Perhaps never to return. 

So off we went to la France profonde, to the Corrèze, and to the small town of Tulle. I have fond memories of Tulle. I once had a very good meal there and drank some excellent red wine from the nearby Tarn valley. For the French it evokes entirely different memories: in 1944 the retreating Waffen SS massacred hundreds of its inhabitants, hanging many from the lampposts. From now on it will also be remembered as the place where François Hollande became the second socialist President of the Fifth Republic. 

By the time Hollande appeared in the Place de la Cathédrale it was pouring with rain but this clearly had done little to diminish the feelings of local pride and patriotism of Tulle’s population. Austerity, Hollande announced, was not inevitable, and with the help of France’s European partners, and above all of Germany, the future could be one of growth, employment and prosperity. Then, with Hollande’s new partner Valérie Trierweiler at his side, accordionists began playing “La Vie en Rose”. It might have been kitsch but there was not a dry eye in the house. 

What followed was one of those very curious French rituals. The President-elect, having promised the faithful that he would return, made his way through the crowd — un bain de foule, as the charming French phrase has it — got into his car (a rather modest Peugeot, from what I could make out) and then headed to the airport at Brive, followed by scores of camera crews mounted on motorbikes. As we saw at tedious length, the man who embodied France’s (and, apparently, Europe’s and even the world’s) hopes was on the telephone.  

No sooner had Hollande arrived in Paris — and experienced another bain de foule — than he made his way to the Place de la Bastille, the traditional stomping ground of the French Left in times of celebration. Everyone was in on the act, including the ecologists, with their mighty score of less than 3 per cent in the first round, and even Robert Hue, former leader of the now almost extinct French Communist Party. I saw that Jean-Marie Le Pen had been right: Hue really did look like a garden gnome! By the time that Hollande stood before the immense crowd, no one in the audience looked as if they cared what was happening. The tennis player turned rock star Yannick Noah had entertained them and copious amounts of vodka had done the rest. When Hollande led a late-night rendition of La Marseillaise, most of the crowd seemed incapable of remembering the words. 

So how can we explain this outcome? The first thing to note is that Hollande, with 51.68 per cent of the vote, secured only a slender majority. Little by little, Sarkozy had clawed his way back into the race. What we also know is that, in the second ballot, there was a record number of votes blancs: spoilt ballot papers. The evidence suggests that many of these came from people who had voted for the Front National in the first ballot and who had followed the advice of its leader, Marine Le Pen, to support neither candidate. Controversially, Sarkozy had gone all out to win over these voters, highlighting the themes of illegal immigration and the need to protect France’s borders. Pouring scorn upon his socialist opponent, he had positioned himself as a political outsider battling against the left-wing bias of the media. Only in the very final days of the campaign did Sarkozy return to traditional Gaullist themes. The strategy succeeded but not well enough, and at a cost. Many at the political centre deserted him.

Next we need to understand the intensity of the hostility directed towards Nicolas Sarkozy. This is not the place to assess the achievements of his presidency. They were many, and they were gained in a very challenging economic environment. Forging an alliance with Angela Merkel to stabilise the euro was not the least of these achievements. Nor was a willingness to use France’s air power to help remove Muammar Gaddafi. University reform was another. Yet, almost from the beginning, a sizeable proportion of the French population saw Sarkozy as an object of contempt. This had little to do with the complexities of his private life —lest we forget, Sarkozy divorced, remarried and had a child while President — and derived more from what was widely perceived as a lack of style and behaviour appropriate to his office. Time and time again the decision to celebrate his victory in 2007 at an expensive restaurant in Paris came back to haunt him. Never was he able to shake off his reputation as “President Bling-Bling”. Opinion polls indicate that 55 per cent of those who voted for Hollande did so in order to “barrer la route à Sarkozy“.

Sarkozy had another major weakness: he consistently misjudged the determination and durability of his main opponent. This was perhaps understandable. Hollande has never held ministerial office and has spent most of his political career as head of the ever-fractious Socialist Party. While undoubtedly intelligent — like many French politicians, Hollande is an “enarch”, a former student of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration — he came over at best as worthy and uninspiring. Indeed, had not Dominique Strauss-Kahn so dramatically blotted his copybook in a New York hotel bedroom, Hollande would never have been a presidential candidate. But, much slimmed down, and with new glasses and a new girlfriend — a journalist on Paris Match — it was Hollande who beat off his rivals and received his party’s nomination. 

There has been, and still is, much discussion about what sort of socialist Hollande is. François Mitterrand is a clear reference point. So is Jacques Delors. Unlike many of his colleagues, Hollande did not pass through the extreme Left in his youth. In fact, Hollande is relatively light on ideology. He has never disguised his commitment to the core republican value of laïcité. He supports gay marriage and the right to assisted suicide. If anything, he is a decentraliser, believing that policies are best implemented at local level rather than by Paris. Hollande has never shown any enthusiasm for tax cutting. He supported the proposed European constitution in 2005. Revealingly, when Hollande talked about “the French dream” during his campaign, it was in terms of the modest hope that future generations would have a better life.

It is this relative lack of firm commitments that in part explains why Hollande is seen by friends and foes alike as “Mr Normal”. Moreover, after the outbursts and emotional unpredictability of Sarkozy, this is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Simplicity and a lack of ostentation are trademarks of Hollande’s style. This also helps us understand what Hollande means when he has talked of being a “normal” president. Sarkozy earned the sobriquet of   “omniprésident“. He interfered in everything and considered nothing beyond his reach. Hollande sees the presidential office in almost Gaullist terms: above all, he has repeatedly declared, the president should be the guarantor of national unity and of republican principles. The charge against Sarkozy is that he was neither.

However, this also means that there are whole areas of policy where we have only the dimmest perception of where Hollande stands. With regard to foreign policy, for example, we have very little to go on. Hollande intends to preserve France’s nuclear strike force. He has indicated that French combat troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year. He has also said that France will recognise a Palestinian state. For the rest we are left with a vague reference to a renewal of multilateralism. We know nothing, for instance, of Hollande’s views on the recent popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Nor has he stated a position on how we should respond to dangers posed by a nuclear Iran. On energy policy, Hollande has promised to reduce the level of electricity generated by nuclear power from 75 per cent to 50 per cent by 2025 but he has not explained how he thinks that renewable sources will make up the shortfall and at what cost.

What therefore lies ahead? The salaries of the President and all government ministers will be reduced by 30 per cent with immediate effect. Petrol prices will be frozen for three months. For all those who began work at or before the age of 18 and have paid 41 years of contributions, the right to retire at 60 will be restored. Salaries in public enterprises will not be allowed to exceed a ratio of 20 to 1. Legislation will be introduced to separate the investment and retail arms of the banking system.

Beyond this, Hollande has made much publicised promises to create 60,000 new teaching posts and to balance the budget by 2017. The latter target, Hollande told the audience of his televised debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, will be attained by savings on expenditure of €50 billion and by increases in taxation of €40 billion. There will consequently be a new wealth tax, a tax rate of 45 per cent on income above €150,000 (it presently stands at 41 per cent) and, of course, a tax rate of 75 per cent on income above €1,000,000. It is this proposed 75 per cent rate that has put a spring in the step of West London estate agents.

But at the heart of Hollande’s entire strategy has been the pledge to renegotiate the European fiscal pact agreed to last December by Nicolas Sarkozy. The plan is to tilt the balance away from austerity towards growth and employment creation. Hollande envisages a broader remit for the European Central Bank and the issuing of   eurobonds to fund infrastructure projects. Here Hollande thinks that he is capturing a broader mood within the eurozone but by the time that I left Paris, only two days after Hollande’s victory, the noises coming from Berlin were that renegotiation was not a possibility. “The party’s over” announced the front page of Le Figaro. If this is so and if Angela Merkel refuses to budge, then Hollande’s room for manoeuvre on economic policy will effectively be reduced to zero. Already there are rumours that some of France’s biggest companies, having delayed the decision in an effort to help Sarkozy, are about to announce major redundancies.

What of the wider political picture? One of the undoubted winners of France’s presidential contest was Marine Le Pen. In the first ballot she secured nearly 18 per cent of the vote, again showing that rivals, journalists and pollsters consistently underestimate the appeal of both Le Pen herself and her party’s programme. While she did better in certain parts of France than others — she did spectacularly well in former industrial areas like the Pas-de-Calais, for example — there was no region of France where she scored less than 10 per cent. She received a higher percentage of the working-class vote than any other candidate and over 20 per cent of the votes cast by those aged between 18 and 34. Many factors explain this success — not least Le Pen’s own performance and personality — but her underlying appeal undoubtedly derives from her willingness to address issues — immigration, law and order, the need to protect French industries from foreign competition, and so on — that are of concern to a sizeable cross-section of the French population. Only among the liberal professions did she fail to make any significant electoral advance.

This success places Le Pen in a very powerful position. Moreover, her calculation was that a defeat for Sarkozy would be to her advantage. Having done her best to sabotage his chances, she immediately cast the Front National as the only party capable of opposing the Left. 

This in turn poses a problem for Sarkozy’s own party, the UMP. First, with Sarkozy’s defeat, there is very little, if anything, that remains of historic Gaullism. Next, Sarkozy’s departure opens up the way for what could be a lengthy and bitter struggle to secure the leadership of the movement. If former prime minister François Fillon looks well-placed, there is no clear candidate to head the party. Since the defeat of the second ballot all the talk has been about unity but this cannot hide the many tensions and rivalries. A split cannot be ruled out. In particular, the UMP faces the challenge of parliamentary elections in June where the political imperative is that of limiting the success of the socialists. This is where Le Pen comes in, and where the UMP faces an acute dilemma.

Like presidential elections, parliamentary elections in France are decided by two ballots. French electoral law stipulates that any candidate obtaining more than 12.5 per cent of the vote can stand again in the second ballot. On the basis of polling in the first round of the presidential election, it is estimated that as many as 350 Front National candidates might present themselves. In contrast there was only one candidate as recently as 2007. The dilemma facing the UMP is whether, in these circumstances, it contemplates an electoral pact with Marine Le Pen’s party. If it does not, it faces heavy losses. If it does, it risks further strengthening the Front National and weakening its own position as the dominant party on the Right. More fundamentally, the choice will determine whether the UMP positions itself as liberal and republican or anti-European and nationalist. The indications are that a majority of UMP voters favour an alliance with the Front National.

The political dilemmas facing Hollande are of a different nature. At present the Socialist Party holds 186 seats in the National Assembly. It needs 289 to secure an absolute majority. The electoral boost provided by Hollande’s victory looks set to deliver those seats. However, on his Left Hollande faces the Front de Gauche and the rather troublesome character of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the big loser of the first round. Mélenchon made the mistake of believing his own propaganda and staked all on coming ahead of Marine Le Pen. As it was, he secured only 11.11 per cent of the vote and came in a poor fourth. 

But Mélenchon tells us a lot about the unchanging character of a significant part of the French Left. Without embarrassment, he proclaims himself to be “completely Jacobin, revolutionary, republican and French”. At his rallies, women dress as Liberty and wear the Phrygian bonnet. Few of Mélenchon’s supporters voted for Hollande but they will seek to ensure that he steers as left-wing a course as possible. How long Hollande can keep such unreconstructed leftists on board is an open question.

Hollande also has to ensure that his party makes the transition from opposition to government. This is especially difficult for parties of the Left, for whom the responsibilities of power usually come at a heavy price. Hollande will need to balance carefully the demands of traditionalists and modernisers within his party leadership, and also withstand potential clashes between an older and a younger generation. No less difficult to decide is the role to allot to Ségolène Royal. 

In my view, however, Hollande faces an even bigger challenge. On the night of his victory, Hollande boldly announced that “France has chosen change.” Putting aside the peculiarities of a logic which allows just over 50 per cent of the vote to be transposed into the general will, it is far from clear that this is the case. If Hollande’s electorate was largely Parisian and urban, it was also drawn mostly from public sector workers. These people did not vote for change but for the preservation of their pensions and their employment rights. Hollande likewise received strong support from young people. A recent opinion poll in Le Monde revealed that 73 per cent of the French population aged between 15 and 30 would work for the state if they had the choice. Fifty-nine per cent of these people gave security of employment as their reason. Serving the public came way down the list. We also know that 61 per cent of those who voted against ratification of the European constitution in 2005 voted for Hollande, and that these same voters are largely hostile to the globalising forces that the French call “neoliberalism” and the Anglophone world calls laissez-faire. Just about the only electoral statistic that supports Hollande’s description of his victory is that 79 per cent of practising Catholics voted for Sarkozy. 

So can we expect the rich and the talented of France to be drawing down the blinds as they pack their bags and take the Eurostar to London? Hollande thinks not, and he has done much to try to reassure the business and banking worlds. “I want justice and not revenge,” he recently commented in an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur. And here we need to understand something of the history of the French Left. Ever since Edouard Herriot and the so-called Cartel de Gauche resigned from government in the 1920s, the Left in France has been obsessed by the power of what Herriot described as the “mur d’argent“. The suspicion that the world of finance would do everything it could to bring down the Left was only confirmed ten years later when the Popular Front government headed by Léon Blum was forced to devalue the franc by 30 per cent. Reforms came to an end and soon Blum was gone. The arrival of François Mitterrand at the Elysée Palace in 1981 proved to be no happier an experience. Not surprisingly the markets reacted badly to attempts to nationalise virtually every major French company. Within two years all plans to break with capitalism had been abandoned. 

When Hollande speaks of the financial world as his adversary therefore, he is falling back upon a long tradition of socialist rhetoric. We might wonder about the value of such language, as also we might question the wisdom of the policies Hollande proposes to pursue, but we should not be misled into thinking that there is necessarily much substance behind the rhetoric. The chances are that the new government will not balance the budget and that taxation will increase. Unemployment will not come down much and predictions for growth will turn out to be over-optimistic. But I doubt that things will go very badly wrong. In France they rarely do. Greece and Spain, as we have already seen, are a different matter, and it will be interesting to see how Hollande responds to the next stage of the ongoing euro crisis. At this point the French might well begin to regret that they said goodbye to Monsieur Sarkozy.

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